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Your Guide to the Senate Education Committee: A Really Diverse Bunch

By Lauren Camera — January 15, 2015 5 min read
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Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, is sprinting out of the gates of the newly minted, Republican-controlled Congress with his sights set on reauthorizing No Child Left Behind once and for all.

He’s pledged to work in a bipartisan manner alongside ranking Democrat Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t be the case. After all, Alexander, a former governor of the Volunteer State and Education Secretary under President George H.W. Bush, is known to be a pragmatic politician. Case in point, he’s already met with Murray at least three times since the start of Congress last week.

But in order to craft an overhaul of the federal K-12 education law that can clear the committee, the full Senate, and the president’s desk, Alexander will have to sharpen his politicking skills.

For starters, the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee is stacked with lawmakers who represent every political spectrum, from libertarian to Tea Party, from liberal lion to socialist.

“I think most people would agree that we have as ideologically diverse a committee as any committee in the Senate,” Alexander noted on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, the day he unveiled a discussion draft for reauthorization.

“But we worked very well together [last Congress],” Alexander continued. “Where we disagreed, which was often, we simply stated our peace and we voted. But we looked for opportunities to agree and we produced 24 bills from the committee that became law.”

First, some notable Republicans:

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., the libertarian and potential 2016 presidential candidate, has long favored eliminating the U.S. Department of Education and is a big proponent of charter schools, Title I portability, and voucher programs. He’s also staunch a opponent of the Common Core State Standards.

Paul, however, doesn’t really care about appeasing his party so much as doing what he thinks is right. That’s led him to occasionally team up with Democrats. He’s currently on a mission with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey to overhaul the criminal justice system.

Paul is also known for being a bit of a troublemaker when it comes to the legislative process. Back in 2011, for example, the first time the committee seriously attempted to reauthorize the law, Paul threw a monkey wrench into the markup process over a technical procedural glitch.

Then there’s Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., a Tea Party darling who’s vowed to make the reauthorization “as conservative as possible,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

Unlike Alexander, Scott isn’t one for bipartisan negotiations. “I don’t have a record of compromising on my principles,” Scott said.

And now for some notable Democrats:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has quickly ascended to a leadership role in the Senate, is one of the Democratic caucus’ most brazen liberals. She’s made splashes in the higher education arena pushing for student loan reforms that give borrowers more leeway to restructure loans, among many other things. She will likely push for a stringent accountability system, among other provisions that provide protections for the most disadvantaged students.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, is a self-described socialist. As he does with most legislation, Sanders will likely try to pull the reauthorization as far left as possible.

But don’t consider him a mouthpiece for the administration or U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He’s been a fierce critic of competitive grant programs like Race to the Top, which he argues alongside Republicans ignores rural states.

There are, of course, moderates on both sides of the aisle:

  • Sen. Jonny Isakson, R-Ga.
  • Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine
  • Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.
  • Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
  • Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa.

And there are some special scenarios to consider as well:

For one, Murray’s home state of Washington lost its waiver last year and is operating under the old No Child Left Behind accountability system. That gives her extra incentive to overhaul the law ASAP.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., hails from a state that filed suit against the federal government over No Child Left Behind. So there’s some motivation for him as well.

And Bennet, it should be noted, has been a close ally of Duncan’s on K-12 policy. But it’s unclear where exactly he stands on Alexander’s draft and whether he’ll continue to back the administration during this reauthorization process.

Altogether, Alexander has his work cut out for him in trying to craft a reauthorization that both appeases conservatives’ desire to roll back the federal footprint on education and placate Democrats by including enough accountability.

The big policy issues that we expect to illicit the most debate? Annual testing, Title I portability, block granting programs, accountability systems, and early-childhood education.

And should a measure clear the committee and the full Senate, his job will likely become even more difficult during the conference period with the House. There, he’ll have to negotiate whatever bill comes out of the Senate with what will likely be a more conservative reauthorization measure that comes out of the House, all while ensuring enough sweeteners are included to guarantee the president’s signature.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, has yet to release a reauthorization proposal, though he said he plans to get one to the House floor by March. That bill is expected to mirror previous measures that Kline has successfully ushered through the chamber.

Notably, Kline’s committee has eight new members, some of whom are especially conservative, including Rep. Glenn Grothman, R-Wis., who as a state House member authored legislation providing a refundable tax credit to parents of children in private schools. For that reason, some politicos are anticipating a more conservative bill during this reauthorization go-around than the last.

And you might recall, in 2013, the bill Kline cleared through his committee became more conservative on the House floor, when his caucus voted to eliminate a provision requiring teacher evaluations and added Title I portability language during the amendment process.

“I know that there will have to be 60 votes to move out of the Senate, 60 votes to go to conference, and 60 votes to pass a bill in the end,” Alexander said. “That takes working with all senators here, including those on the other side. I also know ... that if we want it to be a law, it takes a presidential signature and that president today is President Obama.”